George Waggner, 1941
Starring: Dick Foran, Peggy Moran, Leo Carillo
Horror Island feels much more like a black and white, live action, feature length episode of Scooby Doo than it does like a Universal horror film, but that is potentially part of its charm. Bill Martin, the owner of a small island off the coast of Florida, Morgan’s Island, smells success when an old sailor gives him half of a treasure map indicating that famous pirate/buccaneer Sir Henry Morgan’s treasure is buried somewhere on his island. Soon after he learns that the map is a fake, but his entrepreneurial spirit takes hold and Bill decides to advertise and sell a treasure hunt vacation on the island.
After Bill prepares the island for his fake cruise, he manages to attract a diverse gang of people: a socialite, Wendy, and her boyfriend, a gangster and his wife on the lam, a private investigator, and a few others. The trip is immediately plagued with trouble, including a faulty compass to ensure they get lost, and it is obvious someone is trying to sabotage them. There are a few near misses before someone is actually murdered, the castle on the island appears to be haunted, and someone known as The Phantom seems to be after them. Some of the characters think it is all an elaborate joke until the boat disappears, they are stranded, and everyone begins to suspect everyone else.
Director George Waggner had a busy year in 1941, churning out this film, Man Made Monster, his first collaboration with Lon Chaney, Jr., and their more successful outing, The Wolf Man. Horror Island is certainly one of his more minor efforts. The cast is average and none of them are particularly recognizable, though leads Dick Foran and Peggy Moran reunited again after the recent Mummy sequel, The Mummy’s Hand. Horror Island was actually released as a double feature with Man Made Monster, though the latter is a more serious sci-fi horror film, though of course with some ridiculous B-movie elements.
There are a number of mystery tropes at work here, such as the killer leaving notes counting down the remaining survivors, a la Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, red herrings galore, a spooky castle, secret passages, a treasure chest that contains only a skeleton, and much more. Of course there is a happy ending, where Bill and Wendy wind up together and the government buys the island from Bill at a ridiculous price, allowing them to live happily ever after. This borrows a lot from the old dark house subgenre and feels very much like a campy haunted house movie most of the time. The humor can be pretty grating and script seemed lost at the conclusion, trying to find as many ways to wind up the proceedings as possible.
The film often tries too hard, adding too many twists and red herrings, but quickly killing off suspects and dissolving the potential that something supernatural could be at work. It’s difficult to care about any of the characters (or occasionally to remember who they are), but this is pretty standard fare for crowded murder mysteries.
While this is by no means a great film, it is a lot of fun if you like campy, older murder mysteries. You can find it as part of the Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive, which includes other rare/forgotten horror films like The Black Cat (1941), Man Made Monster, Night Monster, and Captive Wild Woman.